What is Autism?



What is Autism?

I’ve developed a free handout on Autism that you can download here or by clicking the image below.

Parent Handout: What is Autism?

Autism is a sensitive subject.  Let’s change that!  Parents are not generally happy or excited to find out that their child may be Autistic.  Likewise, therapists like SLPs (speech language pathologists) may feel uncomfortable pointing out characteristics of Autism.  However, as we are often one of the first professionals to work with a young child, this is important.  Parents and providers can join the neurodiversity supporting movement and learn to embrace Autism as a learning style, a proud identity, and a culture. 

My thought process on this has changed a bit recently.  I used to think and side with “well it won’t change how we treat the child”.  This was something I overheard often at IEP meetings.  Now, I think differently.  This is partly true, speech therapy may look very much the same whether the child has autism or not, but having an early diagnosis can open doors to other therapies (OT, play therapy, etc) that SLPs don’t typically provide.  So, is an early diagnosis helpful?  Yes.  Early intervention leads to better outcomes. 

What is Autism? Autism is medically considered a developmental disorder. 1/59 children in the US have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In the neurodiversity movement, Autism is embraced as a learning style and a proud identity

What are characteristics of autism? *Not talking (40%) *Repeating what others say (echolalia) *Trouble making friends *Wanting to be alone *Not responding to name *Problems with safety *Problems with behavior *Trouble sleeping *flapping hands, lining up toys, rocking, toe walking, spinning things, staring at things (“stimming”) *Picky Eating *High skills in reading (hyperlexia) *Not pointing or showing things *Covering ears *Seeming “lost” or “in their own world” *More/Less sensitive to pain *Loss of skills *Doesn’t like change, plays with only certain toys, eats only certain foods, wears only certain clothes (restricted interests)

(Autistic individuals can have some or all of these symptoms)

What causes Autism? Experts aren’t sure yet. Research and Ideas include: differences in the brain, genetics (family traits), and things in the environment.

What is the spectrum? People on the Autism spectrum can be very different from each other. They can be very smart (+high IQ) and have a hard time in the world at the same time. They can also have intellectual disabilities (+low IQ) and need less help in the world. It varies a lot, so many medical provider’s call it a “Spectrum”. Each Autistic person is different.  Many describe the spectrum as more of a Venn Diagram than a left-to-right spectrum.  Characteristics, needs, and strengths overlap.

+IQ is also not necessarily a true measure of “intelligence” for people with autism.  They can have intellectual skills that don’t show in this type of testing.  It’s hard to really measure “intelligence” in some people with autism.  However, this type of testing can be helpful in determining how much help and support someone needs to be safe in society. 

What should I do my child has characteristics of autism? *Get help early (experts say the earlier the better). *Take your child for an evaluation to find out more. *See a developmental specialist to find out if your child is Autistic.

What can I do while I wait for a provider? *Use visuals at home (ex. Schedule, routines, stop sign on the door, etc). *Keep the same bedtime each day. *Take your child to the doctor, therapy appointments, and school. *Find ways to connect to your child. *Try to stay calm and patient (this is hard). *Take a break for self care if you can. * Join local support groups.

Now what? * Acknowledge your feelings as you navigate this. They are real, important, and valid. You are not alone. Autism is a learning style.  It’s also a proud identity for many adults.  Strengths common in Autistic people:

*Reading early (hyperlexia) *Noticing details (detail oriented) *Memorizing things easily *Honesty *Thinking in a visual way *Punctuality *Direct communication *Ability to focus on things they enjoy *Routine Follower

Sources: ASHA (2020), NICD (2020),  Autism Society of NC (2020) 

If you are an SLP, you might be interested to read the article from the ASHA Leader: Seeing Signs of Autism?  Speak Up and Guide Parents to See Them Too

*Note from 2021: Neurodiversity-affirming practice indicates that many Autistic adults prefer identity first language (example: “Autistic person” instead of “person with autism”).  Likewise, they may prefer the use of the term “characteristics” instead of “signs or symptoms”. 

For parents, here are some resources that may be helpful: 

  1. Autism Little Learners    (Tara has created a LOT of free social stories for families during this unique and challenging time)
  2. Panda Speech  (Amanda has created a free home schedule for families)
  3. Ausome Speech (this is me….if there is anything that you need, please feel free to reach out and request it.  I do try to volunteer a percentage of my time to create free materials for families and therapists.  My email is eheplerslp@gmail.com
  4. Autism Society
  5. Free Autism Materials on Teachers Pay Teachers

Autistic Professionals and Other Neurodiversity-Affirming Groups

I encourage you to be sure to include adults who are Actually Autistic as part of your education.  This is helpful for professionals and parents. 

*Rachel Dorsey: Autistic SLP

Meaningful Speech: Information on Gestalt Language & Echolalia

*Just Keep Stimming: AAC User and Speaker

*The Autistic OT

*Actually Autistic

Scholarly Research & Information on Neurodiversity and Autism


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My name is Elizabeth Hepler and I’ve been a practicing Speech-Language Pathologist since 2005.  I am the mother of four great kids. Our household is neurodiverse: ADHD, Autism, Gifted, and more!

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